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A Controversial Baserunning Rule Almost Ruined the World Series

An umpire judgment call had the world talking, but the real problem lies with the rule.

Original image from AP Photo/Matt Slocum

After a dominant pitching performance from Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals forced a World Series Game 7, coming back from a first-inning deficit to defeat the Houston Astros 7–2 and continuing the streak of the road team winning every game in the series.

Judging by the reaction to the game, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Nationals had been eliminated due to one of the worst calls in the history of baseball.

The truth is more complicated than that (this was no Armando Galarraga situation with an objective right and wrong answer), but a highly controversial officiating decision did have the potential to swing the entire World Series.

While that scenario thankfully didn’t become reality, Tuesday night’s close call brings to light a paradoxical rule which deserves to be examined further.

The play in question comes from the top of the seventh inning, with the Nationals batting with a 3–2 lead, a runner on first base, and no outs. Trea Turner hits a short ground ball which is fielded by Astros reliever Brad Peacock. Peacock then turns and throws to first, but as the ball is reaching the base, Turner runs into the glove of first baseman Yuli Gurriel.

As a result, Gurriel’s glove comes off, and the play becomes a double for Turner. However, umpire Sam Holbrook calls Turner out, ruling that he interfered with the throw.

Check it out for yourself.

The rationale is a rule mandating that in the final half of a batter’s run to first base, he must stay within the runner’s lane, the three-foot space extending past the foul line.

What followed the ruling was pandemonium. Turner and Nationals manager Dave Martinez were irate. Turner’s swing carried him inside the baseline, but from that point onward, he ran in a straight line, eventually crossing the center of first base.

He made no attempt to intentionally interfere with the throw — Gurriel simply had to stretch his glove over the bag in order to catch the ball from the location and angle at which it was thrown. Turner did all he could in this scenario — any attempt to modify his trajectory to enter the runner’s lane would’ve led to him taking a longer path and likely being unable to beat the throw.

It’s a clashing of rules — the runner is allowed a line to the base, but simultaneously, the first baseman has the right to position himself in a place to catch the ball.

Ultimately, it comes down to a judgment call from the umpire, and just as surprising as any other aspect of this situation for me is that Holbrook decided to call interference, something we rarely see, in a critical moment in a tight World Series Game 6 from a relatively large distance away. While he certainly has the discretion to do so, it didn’t seem obvious, not by a long shot. In those situations, we expect no-calls.

Martinez then informed the umpires the Nationals would be protesting the game due to a misapplication of the runner’s lane rule, even though he would later admit to knowing that was not allowed.

Sure enough, the MLB rules state teams cannot protest judgment decisions by umpires.

However, this situation ended up triggering perhaps the longest official review in recent memory, as once the umpires confirmed that the protest wasn’t allowed, they then had to decide whether or not Martinez’s call for one constituted a rules infraction.

How long did this take, you ask? Far too long. From the point at which Turner was initially called out until the review concluded, confirming the call as non-reviewable and deciding the Nationals did not need to be punished further, a full nine minutes and 34 seconds had passed.

Clearly, a delay of this length is just ridiculous. It‘s terrible for baseball and a big part of why I believe these calls don’t need to be made reviewable in the future. We’ve already seen with pass interference in the NFL this season how reluctant referees have been to overturn calls, and I fear the same would be true here. Instead, I think the rule itself needs to be changed (but more on that a bit later).

The timing of this call couldn’t have been any worse for the Nationals. Facing elimination in the World Series and clinging onto a one-run lead, if they had lost this game, the interference call would’ve been correctly seen as a turning point, and all hell would have broken loose (even more than it already did across both the Nationals’ dugout and the internet).

This isn’t the way anyone wants the World Series to be decided.

Luckily, two batters later, Anthony Rendon smashed a two-run homer to ease tensions. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but it was certainly a “ball don’t lie” moment if there ever was one.

Well, I say the home run eased tensions, but it didn’t stop Martinez from absolutely tearing into the umpires during the seventh-inning stretch, and getting thrown out in the process.

But because it didn’t change the outcome of the game, this call, no matter how terrible it might be depending on your perspective, won’t go down in history. However, we should make sure a situation like this never happens again.

Whether it’s an out or not based on the rulebook (Disclaimer: I think it was a pretty terrible call, regardless), the rule itself is terrible. Batters are expected to run outside the baseline, in foul territory, to avoid interfering with the defense, but then still have to touch the base, which is in fair territory, in order to be safe! It makes no sense.

Following the ruling, Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber suggested implementing the safety bag from softball and some little leagues, which allows the runner to touch in foul territory and still be called safe. The first baseman and baserunner each get their own space, which should prevent interference.

Considering first is the only base players are allowed to run through, it’s only logical to give hitters a separate bag. Currently, players take lines like Turner all the time. Here’s a comparison between Turner and José Altuve in the very next inning. Notice how similarly they’re positioned as they approach first base.

Left: Trea Turner, 7th inning; Right: José Altuve, 8th inning

The only difference which makes Turner’s case interference is the way the first baseman has to move to catch the ball. In most cases, the first baseman isn’t required to move their glove over the plate. However, if doing so increases their chances of getting an interference call, you might see more fielders try to hit batters running to first base with their throws.

Hopefully, Game 7 will be a classic, and its storylines will surround the players and not the officiating. But between Game 6’s “judgment call” and Game 5’s strike zone fiasco, it seems we’ve been talking about everything but the Astros and Nationals.

Bring on the robot umps.

Connor Groel is a writer who studies sport management at the University of Texas at Austin. He also serves as editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium, and the host of the Connor Groel Sports podcast. You can follow Connor on Medium, Facebook, and Twitter, and view his archives at toplevelsports.net.

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